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Jacob Weisman, a 26-year-old line cook at Daikaya who also pulls some shifts at Bantam King, can’t afford to take an Uber home to Greenbelt, Maryland, when his night ends. And there’s no good bus route for him, either.
Already, Daikaya has reduced weekend hours to close at 11 p.m. so employees and patrons can still take Metro home before the train’s midnight closure during SafeTrack repair work. The notion that Metro would make the change permanent—and also end service at 10 p.m. on Sundays, as Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld has proposed—strikes Weisman as an assault on the city and the people it serves.
“It’s a huge deal,” he says. “For me personally, there’s not really a bus that goes directly to my place. I think there are three separate buses, and I don’t think they run where I need them to. And calling a car, if there’s a deal, maybe it’ll be $10. But during surge times, it could be upwards of $50 to $65.”
Like thousands of other service workers in and around D.C., Weisman is an hourly employee. While he says he does alright, he’s not rolling in discretionary income. “There are lot of people who make less than I do,” he says. “It’s the nature of the industry.”
It is this crucial population, and the vibrant D.C. entertainment and cultural life it serves, that stands to lose the most from an enduring curtailment of late-night rail service, which ran until 3 a.m. on weekends before SafeTrack began. The topic will be the subject of a widely watched Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority committee meeting this week, during which Metro management will formally ask for authorization to hold a public hearing about a set of three options for reducing service permanently.
The introduction this week (via a transit committee meeting agenda) of three early-closure scenarios suggests the agency sees the writing on the wall, namely that its board of directors and the public are strongly opposed to permanently diminished service that disproportionately impacts low-income riders. The multiple options are no doubt intended to help make an unpopular idea more palatable.
Among the options is Wiedefeld’s July proposal to run Metro until midnight Monday through Saturday and until 10 p.m. Sunday. Another proposes 11:30 p.m. closures Monday through Thursday and Sunday and midnight Friday and Saturday. And the final one envisions 11:30 p.m. closures Monday through Thursday, 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 11 p.m. Sunday.
But even the simple request for a public hearing is unlikely to be met with certain or unanimous approval. “I don’t think it’s a sure thing that it will get out of committee,” says Leif Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation, who has a seat on the board but not on the committee in question. “The change here is something that has taken a lot of people by surprise.”
More broadly, the safety-versus-service debate that will follow in the days and months ahead will demand that Metro, city officials, and residents consider whether it’s the kind of draconian cutback the District could or should make, and what such a reduction would say about the city’s priorities.
“That’s a big service change,” says Jon Orcutt, a transportation expert for the New York–based foundation TransitCenter. “So that’s much more in the vein of [deciding] what kind of city Washington wants to be. And Washington probably has a hard time answering that question. It is a world capital, but is it a cosmopolitan center in the way that London and New York are?”
Jack Evans, the outspoken Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember and chairman of the transit authority, knows how he’d like to answer that question. “If you want to be a big-league city, you’ve got to act like a big-league city,” he says. He’s unreservedly opposed to ending late-night service beyond the SafeTrack period.
“I don’t support the idea,” he says. “I’m speaking as Jack Evans, board member. My sense from the rest of the board is that most people don’t like the idea either.”
Like business groups, entertainment venues, and people like Weisman, Evans is most concerned about wage earners whose work is fundamental to the District’s economy and who have little choice in transportation. “The people who work late nights to keep our city and our region running, those are the people we’re trying to accommodate,” he says.
Virtually no one challenges the idea that Metro needs more track time to address a range of embarrassing—and deadly—safety problems that have plagued the system and fueled a crisis in confidence and falling ridership. The deliberation and dissent will involve the intricacies of how to do it without violating collective concerns about access to an essential urban service.
“While we are a voice of the business community, part of us is caring for people who support that community,” says Neil Albert, president and executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District. “We are pushing back on Metro’s plan because it doesn’t really address people who need it most, people who are working low-paying jobs in the service industry.”
Among the ideas to mitigate service impact are to work on track segments according to a staggered and more sophisticated plan, and to close or reduce service along parts of rail lines temporarily to avoid a widespread wallop for riders.
“It’s got to be a creative answer, and Metro is not creative,” Evans says. “We need to get more track time, and we have to get creative.”
There is, of course, ongoing dysfunction in the way Metro is funded that will need to be addressed eventually—among them is the absence of a dedicated revenue source, such a 1 percent sales tax that Evans has advocated for years—to help bankroll operations and capital improvements.
“It’s like every day you open the closet and something falls on your head,” Evans says. “This system is a wreck. We have a 1970s system, and we’re trying to run it in 2016.”
Wiedefeld, who was appointed to manage the system late last year in the hope that he could spearhead a turnaround, knows that the proverbial pasta isn’t sticking to the wall. He seems to be bracing himself for a protracted debate. “We want to listen to the people,” he says. “I’ve heard a number of them. Everything from bus to could you do earlier closing during midweek, later openings. But the goal here, again, is to get more access.”
Other potential considerations would be to institute some form of transport voucher system for service workers, something tried in other markets and that would potentially be cheaper than running trains in early-morning hours.
“There are ways to get around this,” says Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “It strikes me that in this digitally rich era, transferring those subsidies that we would pay to operate late-night service at a loss to the individual workers—some kind of voucher system—could be an option.”
Whatever the ultimate solution, the hospitality and service industries are poised for an insurgency to avoid an entertainment apocalypse.
In the face of weekend cutbacks, Black Cat co-founder Dante Ferrando says the rock club has already moved Friday and Saturday night openings from 9 p.m. to 8 p.m. That’s not necessarily a huge hit to the club’s business, but Sunday is another issue entirely.
“Ten o’clock is just ridiculous,” he says. “It’s just giving up on using Metro completely for nighttime business.”
Rock & Roll Hotel booker Steve Lambert says the idea poses a risk to the entire city. “It sounds really boring to me, you know? You want to have this thriving metropolitan life, but you can only have it ’til 10 p.m.”
As for Jacob Weisman, he’d be picketing if he had any time between shifts. “We’re all too busy, to be perfectly honest.”
Andrew Giambrone and Will Sommer contributed reporting.